Talking Pictures

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Anna Neagle

Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2012

Anna Neagle’s acting style, like many of her films, now seems very dated, but the images she created, with Herbert Wilcox, still persist in our culture. For not only was she an extremely popular star but, in a series of performances from the mid-30s to the start of the 50s, she created “a noble type of good, heroic womanhood”, redolent of the values of her time.

She started with standard theatrical adaptations, but in ‘Nell Gwyn’ she initiated a line of portrayals out of British history. As Nell, she embodied the ‘hidden’ side of royal life, as the King’s mistress: appropriate when the most popular royal of the time was Edward, whose own affair precipitated a national crisis.

So it was fitting that Neagle and Wilcox should subsequently take part in the process of re-popularising the monarchy, generating new myths and providing the basis for a new chapter of well-regarded royalty. ‘Victoria the Great’ and ‘Sixty glorious years’ intermingled snatches of official history with the domestic life of the Queen. They demonstrated a stable family model at the heart of the British ideology. Neagle’s Queen shows the development of a young girl into the mother figure of imperial Britain. Walbrook’s Prince Albert provides the focus for popular prejudices about the monarchy, the social changes dictated by the new imperial role, and the emotional life of the Queen.               

With the outbreak of war (‘the people’s war’) Neagle moved on to personify heroines from lower down the social scale. Amy Johnson in ‘They flew alone’ is an ordinary girl who does extraordinary things; she shares with Victoria a steely determination to achieve her destiny. “In a few short hours she’s broken open a great gap in the fence that’s been surrounding our young women for centuries.”

After the war, in ‘Lady with a lamp’, Neagle returned to the most successful and resounding period of imperial history. As the screen Florence Nightingale she gave a portrait of another great Englishwoman who broke the conventions of society and whose sacrifices and sufferings created an enduring icon for the culture.

Two wartime films with fictional story lines utilised Neagle’s stature in the cause of the Anglo-American alliance. In ‘They live in Grosvenor Square’ she chooses to love the Yank ally rather than her homegrown suitor. The bond between the two nations is cemented in a sacrificial gesture when the American crashes his plane to save an English village. In ‘Piccadilly incident’, the male lead (the inescapable Michael Wilding), believing the Neagle character dead, marries an American woman, their male offspring providing a renewal of the bloodstock (a motif in a number of wartime movies). Neagle’s death is again a sacrifice, a convenient plot solution and an ideological equivalent of the death of the American flyer in the earlier film. Her films share more than one commonality, one of the most notable being her battles with male authority. Not with fathers, either missing, dead or singularly non-authoritarian, but with male officialdom, usually upper class. Her choice of partner is likewise upper class. When she marries a less aristocratic figure like Jim Mollison (in ‘They flew alone’) the union is incompatible and they part. Elsewhere, Prince Albert and Sidney Herbert (in ‘Lady with a lamp’) both die young, worn out by work for the nation. Allen (in ‘Piccadilly incident’) appears to be castrated, only losing a walking stick on the occasion of his two marriages. And when Courtney (he of ‘Curzon Street’) goes to rescue his wife in an air raid, it is he who gets injured and has to be nursed by the Neagle character.

This is fully in keeping with the Neagle persona. Her women are strong, articulate and totally committed. While they are allowed moments of emotion and weakness at the death of a child or a loved one, in the moment of crisis they are firm and resolute. It’s partly this resolution which in the end leads to the films’ procession of sacrifices – of domestic happiness (‘Odette’), of the loved one (‘King’s rhapsody’, among many), health or even life itself (‘Nurse Cavell’). Thus while her women may seem radical role models, they are still extremely conservative in their safeguarding of class, family and state.

‘My teenage daughter’ attempts to protect the family from the moral panics of the 50s – pop culture, juvenile delinquency and black immigration. The mother whom Neagle plays here has to both recognise her own errors (caused by her career) and acquire a husband. It is as if she has left behind her past roles and independence, part of the slow process of the dilution of women characters in the British cinema at that time. 

Originally appeared in Film Dope 46 March 1991.


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